Bear to Bear Possibilities: Puzzle Mountain

We got a later than normally late start to our hike today and didn’t arrive at the trailhead for Puzzle Mountain until 11:45 am. It’s a trail we’ve hiked only once before, but knew the chance to see trees with bear claw marks would be numerous.

The Mahoosuc Land Trust and Maine Appalachian Trail Club maintain the trails. Our starting/ending point were at the trailhead on Route 26 in Newry. The plan, should we wish to complete it, was to hike up the Grafton Loop Trail to the summit, then veer to the right and follow the Woodsum Spur Trail in a clockwise manner back to the GLT.

Our other plan to locate bear claw trees . . . was soon fulfilled. The first we spotted about twenty feet off trail, but once our eyes became accustomed to the pattern, we realized they were everywhere.

And some trees had been visited repeatedly.

A few had hosted other guests such as Pileated Woodpeckers.

For about two miles, we traveled under the summer green leaves of a hardwood cathedral. And within such we noticed numerous bear claw tree both beside the trail and beyond.

Occasionally, we noted others worth mentioning such as spring ephemerals like False Solomon’s Seal that showed us the season on the slopes is a bit delayed as compared to our lower elevations.

At last we reached a false summit where the views to the west enhanced the mountains and their natural communities, so defined by shades of green: darker defining conifers and lighter the deciduous trees.

Sunday River Ski Area was also part of the display.

It was at this ledge that we met two young men. They started up a trail behind us and then made their way back and asked us to take a photo. When we asked where they were from, the older of the two said he lived in a small town outside of New Haven, Connecticut. Being a Nutmegger by birth, (and in fact having been born in New Haven), my ears perked up.

“Where in Connecticut?” I asked.

“A small town called Wallingford,” he said.

“I grew up in North Branford (about 15 minutes or so from Wallingford),” I replied. “And have friends in Wallingford.”

Turns out he’s a teacher at Choate-Rosemary Hall, a private school. And his hiking partner was his nephew from New Jersey. They were on their first day of a multi-day backpack expedition.

I took photos for both and then we sent them on the right path, which was behind their first choice. We paused before following them as we didn’t want to be on their tail, but heard the older of the two exclaim, “Wow, that was fortuitous. If we hadn’t gone back for a photo, we wouldn’t have known where the trail was.” We didn’t have any treats to give them as trail angels do, but perhaps our gift of direction was just as important.

While we waited, I honed in on the newly formed flowers of Mountain Ash. I love these trees for the red stems of their leaves and fruits to come.

At last we began the push to the summit, but I had to pause much to my guy’s dismay for the black flies swarmed us constantly. I discovered, however, one reason to celebrate them–besides the fact that they feed birds and members of the Odonata family. I do believe they pollinate Clintonia for we found them on the anthers of those in flower.

Not long after the false summit that the two guys we’d met thought was the top, we reached the junction with the Woodsum Spur Trail. Our plan was to continue to climb and then locate the other end of the spur to follow down from the top. It would take longer, we knew, but be a wee bit gentler in presentation. A wee bit.

As we continued up, another ledge presented a view of Sunday River and so my guy took a photo and sent a text message to our youngest son, who works in Manhattan, and lives in Brooklyn with two buddies he meet while skiing at Sunday River when they were all in high school.

Onward and upward, the conifer cones added a bit of color to the view.

And then we reached a cairn just below the summit. Mind you, the Black Flies were so incredibly thick that we could barely talk without devouring a few. In fact, we gave thanks for eating our lunch much lower on the trail, but even then we’d devoured PB&J with a side of BF.

The view, however, was one to be envied and as long as the wind blew, we could enjoy it in all its panoramic glory.

Again we spied Sunday River. But what always makes me wonder is the tallest tree in the forest. What makes it stand out?

Still, we weren’t quite at the tippy top and had a few more feet of granite to conquer.

There we found the second of two survey markers. Why two? That was puzzling.

Equally puzzling as had happened to us before, where did the trail go?

From past experience we knew that the descent wasn’t all that well marked, but we found it much more quickly today than in the past. And we made sure to point it out to our fellow hikers from CT, whom we’d somehow passed on our final ascent. Our hope for them is that they made it to the shelter on the GLT where they planned to spend the night and that they were well prepared for the bugs. As we left them at the summit, they looked a bit like deer in headlights.

The descent via the Woodsum Spur is as varied as the ascent, but not always as easy to follow. There were downed trees, overgrown sections, lots of mud, and times when we had to search for the trail, much unlike the carpenter ants who knew exactly where they were going on a tree snag.

We passed through one section that reminded my guy of the Munchkins in the The Wizard of Oz, his favorite movie. Just after that we entered an enchanted forest where the giant in my fairy tale, The Giant’s Shower, could have lived happily every after with Falda the fairy.

It was ledges to woods and back to ledges as we descended. But the mileage was questionable for the signs we encountered that indicated distance didn’t necessarily agree.

What did agree with the Woodsum Trail was a moose or two or three. For much of the trail we spotted scat indicating they’d traveled this way all winter.

It was natural signs like that which we most appreciated, but . . . once we finished the spur trail and rejoined the GLT, we spotted a boulder filled with messages we’d missed upon our ascent. You might be put out that some left messages in the moss, but as Ralph Pope, author of Mosses, Liverworts and Hornworts, told us on a Greater Lovell Land Trust walk in 2017, this sort of activity won’t hurt the bryophytes.

When humans leave their initials upon beech trees, however, it does affect them. And I suppose the bear claw marks do as well, but still we are thrilled each time we spy the latter.

Our plan had been to stop for a beer on the way home and make this a Bear to Beer Possibility. But we were pooped for we hiked almost nine miles on a hot summer day and knew if we stopped we might not be able to drive home.

As it happened, driving south on Routes 5/35 and just before the intersection with Vernon Street, a Black Bear ran across the road. For us, it will be another in our shared minds’ eye as I couldn’t take a photo.

Thus today’s hike was a Bear to Bear rather than Bear to Beer Possibility.

Mondate on Mount Will

It’s been a while since we’ve actually had a Mondate. After two days of hiking the trails up Pleasant Mountain, today’s journey found us venturing a wee bit out of the neighborhood as we made our way through Bethel to Mount Will.

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The parking lot is located between these two signs. Part of the Mount Will trail system is within the 115-acre Bethel Town Forest that had served as the Town Farm back in the day.

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The South Cliff trail leaves from the left, while the North Ledges is on the right. This is a loop and we decided on a counterclockwise trek. It had been at least five years since we last hiked here and we’d forgotten about some of the steep sections.

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Of course, at the start, it seemed almost parklike. Three years ago, several local organizations including Mahoosuc Pathways, the Oxford County Conservation Corps, Outward Bound and the Bethel Conservation Commission rerouted this particular section of the loop.

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Now switchbacks wind their way up toward the North Ledge.

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When I wasn’t looking down, I scanned the woods, ever searching for my favorite species–bear claw trees.

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And I wasn’t disappointed.

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We saw them over,

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and over again. Oh happy day! We found more than these, which leads me to believe that there are even more. Let the search continue!

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A few trees displayed other surprise packages–burls or warty growths caused by some environmental condition such as injury, virus, fungus, insect infestation or mold. Though this growth can put stress on a tree if it becomes too heavy, generally trees with these features are healthy. And woodworkers covet burls for the unique pattern and beauty found within. That sounds like a comment on the world–we all have hidden treasures, but they aren’t always visible.

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Other tree growths include artist’s conk and

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red-belted polypores.

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The trail passed below rocky outcrops–and my imagination saw bobcats. But, what would they eat? The undergrowth is limited, so I doubted snowshoe hare. That being said, spruce and hemlock cones are many and red squirrels chided us constantly.

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Meanwhile, at a vernal pool just off the trail, all was quiet–and still partially covered in ice.

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Lunch rock was the North Ledge. Below, the Androscoggin River wends its way through the landscape. The Androscoggin has a long history as a life-giving force–beginning with the Abenaki Indians who used it as a water trail and knew the nuances of this 170-mile river.

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The fertile, ancient floodplain has served many a farmer, including the Carters who own the farm across the river below where we sat. While we ate, we shared our memories of cross-country skiing across those fields, beside the river and into the woods.

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We continued on across the ridge and through the spruce forest where the sap ran blue.

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Before turning toward South Cliffs, we caught a glimpse of the trails at Sunday River Ski Area in Newry.

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And then we saw a sign that had us wondering. The Gray Memorial? We had no previous memory of it, so we followed the detour and walked along a snowmobile trail for about a quarter of a mile.

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The story is sad. The airplane remnants powerful in suggestion. Upon arriving home, I found an article in the Sun Journal referencing the event. Leroy was a state trooper and his wife, Brenda, an executive secretary who became head dispatcher for the Bar Harbor Police Department. With their 14-year-old daughter, Karen, they were flying their Cherokee Piper to Bethel to spend time with relatives when the plane “crashed nose first” into Mount Will about 7:30pm. Despite her own injuries, Karen hiked down the steep mountainside to seek help. A somber site indeed.

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We backtracked to the trail and continued on to the South Cliffs, where our view again showed the river, with Route 2 following beside and both leading to Bethel village.

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Moving off the cliff, we were sure mountain goats had laid out the trail.

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Again, we were in bobcat territory, frequented by chatty red squirrels who seemed to feel quite safe as they scrambled from tree to tree.

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And then we moved into the land where the monkeys in the Wizard of Oz jumped out upon Dorothy and her friends. My guy started humming the music from his favorite movie. The reality is that these trees knew the wrath of previous storms.

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Once again the trail turned S curves as we continued downward and

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listened to water trickling over the mossy stream bed beside us.

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And then we found ourselves in the midst of a recent logging operation–remember, this is a working forest. Slash galore decorated the landscape, but we suspect that all of this will be chipped eventually. One thing we happily noted–bird song. Lots of bird song at this spot.

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We were almost to the bottom of the trail when an anomaly grabbed our attention and forced us to investigate.

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We’d stumbled upon a winter weather station. We only knew that because “winter weather station” was printed in faded paint across the box. So, we get the tape measure for snow depth, but the box? And the hole covered with mesh? Worth a wonder, so we did.

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Apparently, a moth appreciated the efforts of the citizen scientists who created this shelter. Our hike was over, but this chrysalis holds the future.

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We decided to complete our Mount Will Mondate with a visit to Artist’s Bridge over Sunday River–the perfect culmination of our love for nature and history.